Sunday, January 14, 2007

The perfect scientist is still a monkey

Over at Retrospectacle, Shelley Batts has posted a poignant story of love, loss, and labwork, and how they can interact in unpredictable ways. A possible contributor to her scientific troubles was the iconic image of a scientist- the ├╝berscientist as an implacable machine of discovery, dispassionately and efficiently wresting the secrets of nature from the void of the unknown.

The worship of this mythic scientist archetype- logical, knowing, and ruthlessly efficient- is no great surprise. After all, the practice of science requires us to separate data from interpretation, assumptions from observation, and model from process. It is no great mental leap to assume that scientists who analyze and compartmentalize their work for a living ought to be able to apply the same methodology to the rest of their lives. But this is not the case.

Back in the good old days of sailing ships, typhoid, and phlogiston, it was thought that as God’s final creation on the planet, it was our duty to figure out the rest of his week-long make-work project. By knowing the world, we would know the mind of The Lord, bringing us closer to truth, perfection, and divine tranquility.

As the pursuit of knowledge progressed, the sails, phlogiston, and typhoid all got flushed into the toilet of science history. Many scientists claim to have consigned the monotheistic deity to the same fate, but their approach to science belies this claim. For they still labor under the assumption that the universe is a soluble puzzle, a divine creation that can be unlocked through the pious application of the scientific method.

For the most part, the leap of faith that assumes science can work has been remarkably successful. We have discovered a mind-bogglingly large amount of stuff about the universe this way, so it is perilously easy to not only make the antiquated assumption that science will work, but to also that scientists are designed to figure out these secrets. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The greatest science brains are not actually designed at all. They are, rather, the accidental products of hundreds of millions of years of worm, fish, and mammalian mutation, and the fact that they can program computers and spike solutions in addition to selecting and acquiring food, shelter, and mates is nothing short of miraculous.

Just consider: Even though crows, apes, parrots, dolphins, and octopus can all learn tool use- in the hundreds of millions of species-years that these tool-users have been cruising the planet, it is only recently that scientifically capable humans have actually evolved. And even though the fossil record shows that anatomically modern humans have been around for 195,000 years, we have only been doing science for less than 2 percent of that time.

So enjoy the miracle of scientific thinking, but don’t push your luck. The hypothetical ├╝berscientist archetype may be able to compartmentalize emotional suffering and scientific problems by throwing himself into cutting edge research or other activities as a distraction from the emotional pain. On the time scale of a single class or a degree course, a student even might be able to post good scores by doing this. But as Dr. Shellie posted last year, success on the career and semester timescales are not necessarily related. So here are two basic tips for not letting primal needs disrupt labwork.

1. Do not engage in high-risk, high-consequence activities (including labwork) as a method of distracting yourself from something that is bothersome or hurtful. As a coping mechanism, it is about as helpful as drinking whiskey, and it greatly increases the chance of mishaps. If you’re upset, sort yourself out first, then come back to lab. Or if you must hide in your work, do something where mistakes are reversible and non-hazardous. If you MUST go in and do the world’s trickiest procedure in humanity’s least replaceable sample, at least have a chat with your friendly neighborhood busdriver/officemate/techo beforehand to get your problem off your chest, instead of sucking it up and hoping you make it through the day.

2. If you’re doing labwork, and you do make a minor mistake, stop. Obviously some protocols, especially in biology, can’t just be stopped in the middle and put on a shelf. But the most common cause of medium and large screwups in lab that I see- both by myself and by other people- is when people make a trivial error, and then compound it either by rushing to make up lost time, or by getting distracted by the mishap and losing focus. If you mess up, stop ASAP. Get out of lab, have a cup of tea, relax, and then go back to sort out the problem.

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